Taken from
Issue Number 56 Autumn 2004


Pat MacDougall MacLachlan

We have heard a lot in recent years of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912; but few people commemorate another sea tragedy just a generation earlier, one that touched my own family very closely, when an emigrant ship was lost 400 miles south of the Cape of Good Hope in terrible circumstances.

My grandmother, whose first cousin was on board with his wife and young children, could I'm sure have told me everything about it, for the whole family must have been devastated. But she died when I was ten, and I didn't give much thought to 19th century forebears until even my parents' generation - who still might have told so much - had gone beyond questioning. All I did know was that many of them lie in the old burying ground at Killean, beside the ruined kirk, about 18 miles north of CampbeItown. They include MacDougalls, Curries and Thomsons, my grandparents and great-grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts and cousins; and among their graves no memorial is more arresting than the Thomson stone, which you come on just inside the gate. It records John Thomson, 'late miller and joiner, Glenbarr', and his wife Sarah Currie, who was my grandmother's aunt; and below them:


I wanted to know so much more. This is their story, which many people helped me to put together.

On September 11, 1874, a beautiful sailing ship set out from Gravesend Docks in London bound for Auckland, New Zealand. Originally built in India, of Burma teak, for some years the Cospatrick had been used as a troop-carrier under Captain Elmslie. Then, after her owner died, she was bought by the Shaw Savill Line and, still under the command of Captain Elmslie, began a new career as an emigrant ship. She had already made one voyage to New Zealand in this capacity.

The Cospatrick was a fine-looking ship, full-rigged, with three masts each able to set a mainsail, topsail and topgallant, as well as a jib and forward stay-sails and a spanker aft. And she was a ship with a cargo of hope: she carried a crew of 43, her captain's wife and young son, four independent passengers and 433 emigrants - very few of them over 40 years old - on their way to a new life far from everything they had known. A passenger list, put on the internet by Denise and Peter Wells of New Zealand, breaks one's heart with the pathos: many were young parents with their children, little boys and girls and babies; others were single, and the older folk were on their way to join family members who had already emigrated. They came from Scotland, from England, from Ireland, some from France, under a scheme operated by the New Zealand government. Most were farm-workers or domestic servants, with a scattering of skilled tradesmen, joiners and gardeners, a cook, and a few policemen. Some of the emigrants had been 'nominated' by friends or relatives already in New Zealand, and among these were the Thomson family - going to join John's brother Charles who had emigrated earlier and a girl whose name is not known today but who, according to family belief, travelled with them and was going to marry Charles.

The Thomsons' story must have been typical. John Thomson was the eldest son of another John Thomson, meal miller in the village of Barr in the parish of Killean, where he and his wife Sarah, known as Mysie, appear in the census of 1851. (These ten-yearly snapshots of who lived where and with whom, as well as miscellaneous bits of other information, are a marvellous resource for the historically-minded, and are increasingly available on the internet.) In 1851, John and Mysie had a family of six boys - John, then aged 15, Neil, Hector, Charles, Duncan and Lachlan Dugald - and a girl named Ann. Young John's occupation is given as Assistant Miller, which at 15 must have given him some pride. With the exception of Ann, who was 13, all the other children arc listed as 'scholars', even three-year-old Lachlan Dugald. Meal mills were not goldmines, and their dwelling was modest, a small house with only two rooms that had windows, with large beds let into recesses in the thick stone walls as was customary in Highland cottages.

A few miles north of Barr, in the farm of Drumnamucklach, lived the Black family, the youngest of them 12-year-old Barbara, who was to marry John Thomson. There were seven windows in this house, and the family seemed more prosperous. Her father Lachlan was the farmer; her mother Effie Hamill (sometimes Hamilton) came from the village of Clachan in the neighbouring parish of Kilcalmonell. Effie's parents were weavers and she had grown up in the hills slightly north-east of Clachan where there was a generously-flowing burn, a necessity for their occupation. In the 1851 census Lachlan and Effie had six children living with them, from 28-year-old Gilbert, through Archibald, Betty, Donald, and Duncan down to Barbara. Only Duncan and Barbara are listed as scholars; the other boys worked on the farm and Betty appears as a 'housemaid', whether in her parents' house or elsewhere is not apparent. Ten years later the Black family had moved from Drumnamucklach across West Loch Tarbert to the 300-acre farm of Keppoch in Kilberry. There is no mention in this census of Betty - perhaps she had died - but all the rest were there and working on the farm. Meanwhile the Thomsons were still living in Barr, where father John, now 70, is described as 'Wright and miller', young John as 'wright' (we would say joiner) and Charles as apprentice wright. By now the meal mill and joinery were hardly providing enough of a living and as the children grew up some of them had turned to other trades; Neil was a lobster fisher, Ann a domestic servant, and Hector a farm-worker. Sixteen-year-old Duncan and Lachlan Dugald, 13, were still at school. It was in fact a time of economic uncertainty in Kintyre, as in many country places in Scotland. The farming 'improvements' of the previous hundred years had brought more effective methods, but a downside too: great landowners such as the Duke of Argyll were now inclined to see their property as a source of income from rents, and became less concerned than formerly with their role of patron. Often when the customary 19-year lease ran out, a farm would be joined up with neighbouring land and the rent increased, so that the previous tenant could no longer afford it. This meant bigger farms for some, but loss of livelihood for others. And it didn't help either farmers or meal millers that grain was increasingly being imported from the American prairies in steamships and sold more cheaply than the home-grown product. At the same time, the population was growing fast; the enumerator for Barr district noted that 90 families were living there in 1861, and families were large. By 1870 pauperism was common.

More and more people were looking elsewhere for a solution and emigration increased rapidly, to the extent that between the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the outbreak of the First World War a century later, nearly two million people left Scotland for Canada, America or the Antipodes; and often the emigrants sent enthusiastic letters home describing how much better their lives were in the new country, and, perhaps most tellingly of all, how free of social classes and distinctions. Not everybody saw it like that. Emigration also brought heartache, especially for those left behind. And writing his parish report in the Statistical Account of Scotland, the Rev MacDonald, minister in Killean and Kilkenzie, deplored the exodus and declared his conviction that not one of the emigrants 'would relinquish their hills and glens, to which they are attached by the dearest of ties, could any reasonable prospect of employment and support be held out to them in their native land'.

Perhaps it was lack of work that drove John Thomson to leave Barr and go to Glasgow, or he may have already had it in mind to emigrate and thought he could save money towards that ambition more easily in a city. At any rate, in 1866 John Thomson and Barbara Black were married in the parish of Govan. Barbara's father Lachlan Black had died the year before, and during the 1860s her brother Archibald moved to Dalkeith Farm, back in the parish of Killean; changes were afoot for both families. Others of the Black sons moved to separate farms, and of the Thomsons, by 1871, only Neil was still in Barr village, married now with a family and working as a fisherman. The father John died in 1872.

Young John and Barbara's four children were all born in Govan, and it may have been from there rather than Killean that they set out for New Zealand. But mystery surrounds the girl who went with them to marry Charles.

The Cospatrick passenger list shows only seven 'Colonial Nominated Emigrants' who came from Argyll, the six Thomsons and seventeen-year-old Emily Doughton. The assumption must be that it was Charles who nominated them. But who was Emily? She doesn't show up in any birth records for Scotland, and Doughton is not a Kintyre name. Quite possibly she came to Argyll as a servant in one of the big houses in the district, and so met Charles; it was normal practice for the owners of such houses to have a residence in London, and move servants around between the two. Other single women on the ship included Margaret McQueen, aged 21, and Margaret and Jane Scarff, 19 and 16 respectively, who all came from Lanark. Could one of them have been in Govan and met Charles when he visited John and Barbara? It is possible, but seems much less likely as none of these was a 'colonial nominated emigrant'.

At all events, the little group from Argyll must have been full of excitement, no doubt laced with sorrow at the parting, especially from the widowed mothers, as they followed their star of hope and set out on the great adventure. And for them, as for all the emigrants, it must have taken no little courage to face first a long sea-voyage in cramped accommodation, and then the challenge of an unknown country.

For two months all went according to plan, with the ship making fine progress and her passengers getting their sea-legs. The Cospatrick was flush-decked forward of the main mast and would have been a good sailor, fast and weatherly, though perhaps inclined to be wet in a strong wind because of spray flinging across her deck. No doubt this was great fun for the many children on board, and it is easy to imagine their games and their laughter, and the friendships springing up between young people who shared such mixed feelings of sorrow and exhilaration.

And then, when they were 600 miles south-west of the Cape and alone in a huge ocean, on a windy night and with a fast-running sea, suddenly disaster struck. At midnight on November 17 the second mate, Henry MacDonald of Aberdeen, finished his four-hour watch and went to bed. Half-an-hour later he was roused by loud shouts of 'Fire!' and scrambled back on deck to find smoke pouring from the fore hatch, and panic-stricken passengers, wakened by the noise, crowding up to the deck. Amid the consternation, Captain Elmslie, trying desperately to contain the fire, ordered the ship to be put before the wind, but in spite of enormous efforts it could not be done. Within a quarter of an hour, flames burst out of the fore hatch and then the ship came suddenly full head to wind, spreading the flames aft with heavy choking smoke and setting fire to many of the lifeboats. MacDonald and others of the crew asked the Captain to lower the remaining boats, but he was still intent on saving his ship; however, the panic was by now extreme and frantic passengers with screaming children hampered the efforts of the crew. Then, in the terrifying pandemonium, many passengers rushed the quarter boats hanging from davits over the side. About 80 of them crowded into the starboard boat; the davits gave way under their weight and her stern hit the water, capsizing her and throwing everybody in her into the water. Within a few minutes they all drowned.

By now flames had raced the length of the deck. Then in quick succession the fore, main and mizzen masts crashed down. There could no longer be any hope or saving the ship, and the Captain gave the order for each to save himself. The crew managed to lower the port quarter boat, with 33 people inside, and when she reached the water MacDonald, a woman passenger and the first mate jumped down into her; moments later the ship's stern blew out with an enormous roar. Survivors in the quarter boat watched as the Captain threw his wife over the side and then followed her, while the ship's doctor picked up their little son in his arms and leaped after them; they, too, all drowned. It was not quite a quarter to two.

For the rest of the night the port boat stood off at a little distance from the burning ship, and when daylight came the starboard boat, which had somehow been righted and was full of emigrants, appeared nearby. She had no seamen aboard, so MacDonald and a few others joined her while the first mate, Mr. Romaine, remained in charge or the other boat. Both stayed with the Cospatrick until she sank on the afternoon of the 19th, when they abandoned the scene and set course for the Cape.

For two days they managed to keep together. Until now 63 people had survived, with 23 passengers and nine crew in MacDonald's boat, and six crewmen, 25 passengers and a tiny baby in Romaine's. But neither boat had food or water, and they had only the most makeshift of masts or sails; an Irish girl gave MacDonald her petticoat to improvise a sail. Then the wind rose further and during the following night the boats became separated, despite whistling and shouting to keep in touch.

As days dragged past and the sun bore down on them their plight became increasingly desperate. MacDonald told later how some, driven by hunger and thirst, drank seawater and went mad; one by one they were dying, and eventually those who were left resorted to eating the livers and drinking the blood of the dead before putting their bodies overboard.

And then, at last, 10 days after the fire started and more than 500 miles north from where it happened, MacDonald's boat was sighted by the ship British Sceptre, and the five men in her who were still living were rescued. It was almost too late. Though Captain Jahnke and his crew treated them with the greatest care and kindness, two of them, a passenger and a crewman, died soon afterwards; only MacDonald, the quartermaster Thomas Lewis and an 18-year-old seaman named Edward Cotter reached St Helena, where on December 6 Captain Jahnke put them ashore to receive proper medical help. When they had recovered a little, the three men were taken on board the mail-steamer Nyanza, bound for Plymouth, and were finally on their way home.

In spite of an extensive search by the Royal Navy, Mr. Romaine's boat was never found, and not one of the Cospatrick's emigrants survived.

At home, it was a bleak turn of the year as news of the tragedy filtered through. The Governer of St Helena sent a despatch to the Secretary for the Colonies on December 10, and the Nyanza called at Madeira where a telegraph was sent to London on the 26th; she reached Plymouth at the end of the month. By New Year 1875, the story was in the newspapers, including the Campbeltown Courier which in a grieving paragraph on January 2nd gave the names of the six Thomsons 'from Glenbarr, in this district'. Then interviews with the survivors brought out the harrowing sequence of events. The Daily Telegraph (Cospatrick article.) carried a most graphic account, taken up by papers all over Britain, including the Oban Times, in which the story filled an entire column of its single sheet of January 9. And the Illustrated London News gave it prominence for three weekly issues, with pictures of the ship, her Captain and his family as well as the survivors. It seems the whole country was in shock; simple people at home and in New Zealand, like the Thomsons and the Blacks, mourned their shattering loss. And as for poor Charles Thomson, waiting to greet his family and bride, does anybody out there know what became of him?

An inquest was held by the Receiver of Wrecks for the Port of London, and the three survivors gave their evidence. Apparently the fire started in the boatswain's locker, in the forward part of the ship, which held large amounts of inflammable materials including ropes, tar, cotton waste, oil and paint.

The Thomson stone in Killean churchyard was erected in March 1876, a little more than a year later, and, unusually for the time, it does not record who erected it; perhaps it was the heart-broken Mysie. She died herself on November 20, 1878, four years almost to the day after the disaster. Effie Black died in 1879 at Dalkeith, where her son Donald was now the farmer; after losing his wife in 1876, Archibald had moved with his family of five sons and a daughter to the farm of Barr Mains nearby, and he married again four years later.

Neil Thomson and his brothers Hector and Lachlan Dugald remained in the district, and Lachlan Dugald married my grandfather's sister Catherine MacDougall. In succeeding generations many of the Black family emigrated to Rhodesia, in steamships rather than sailing vessels; and there are descendants of both Thomsons and Blacks still living in Kintyre.

My thanks go to Denise and Peter for the Cospatrick's passenger list; Norman Newton, Senior Librarian and Information Co-ordinator, Highland Libraries; Murdo MacDonald, Archivist for Argyll and Bute; Alison Ferguson, Registrar for Inverness; and to Angus Martin, Les Horn, Ian and Ina MacDonald, Elizabeth Marrison and Frances Hood. I am grateful to them all for their help and advice. Denise and Peter's website is


JAMES MCNEILL WHISTLER. Apropos Margaret Macaulay's item (previous issue, p 34), Mr. John Martin, Gigha, reports that, concerning the American painter's antecedents, some 15 years ago a party from North Carolina visited Gigha on the understanding that Whistler's great-grandfather, William McNeill, had originated there. Mr. William C Fields, a reader in Fayetteville, North Carolina, has, however, written to say that William McNeill's place of origin has not been established, though it is known that his wife, Elizabeth, was a daughter of Daniel (Donald) McNeill of Taynish in Knapdale, who, along with ColI McAlester and several others, was a leader of the 1739 Argyll Colony. 'It is possible,' he concludes, 'that William came with that group as a young lad, but he may have come later; we simply don't know.' Editor.

The Dispersal of the Brown Family of Kerranbeg and Machrimore, Part III-
Graeme Reynolds

Margaret Williams also held 20 shares in the Exhibition No. 1 QMC at Maldon, a distant mining town, from 12 July 1884. This company paid dividends in October 1884 and May 1885. The rapid increase in the price of the payment, doubling, from May 1884, suggests that this was a prosperous venture. For a 10s share, Margaret received dividends of £1 2s and £1 5s 9d per share. The dividend implied that the market price of the share was considerably more than the face value.

Margaret Williams died at Deep Lead, Victoria, on 24 May, 1886, aged 37 years. She left a family of 10 surviving children, two sons having died as infants. Some glimpse of the death has been located in a letter from Herbert Williams's brother at Odessa on the Black Sea. This brother, Robert, a merchant sailor, wrote in May 1887 that he had received a letter from home - probably meaning Tytlen, Caernarvonshire - that Herbert's 'dear wife had departed this life and leaving you all orphans'. Robert continued to narrate that 'Margaret [assumed to be his own wife] said in her letter that her heart was saddened because of you all and that she has wept bitterly during the night in her bed thinking of you esp[ecially] the children'. Robert remarked that the delay in writing was attributable to another brother, William, who had not told him of the death. Robert and William Williams, mariners, had visited Margaret and Herbert Williams at Deep Lead in the early 1880s. Robert's letter contained three pages of phonetic English and a fourth page of similar Welsh. From this mix of language, Robert provided another insight into the family. He continued: 'I'll send word to you again, and I see the way clear I'll keep my promise to Ellen and [Isa]Bella. Now I'm hoping the children are doing all right and caring for the little ones and that you and Andrew are having ... or ... paying better than ...'

The omitted words are illegible. The meaning is unmistakably a reference to the success of Herbert and Andrew, the second surviving son, in mining.

The early demise of Margaret Williams and her widowed husband's later marriage in 1890 to Susannah Prydderch, a colonial-born woman of Welsh parentage, would appear to have contributed to the fragmented nature of any information about the Williams children's maternal relatives. Susannah's parents lived nearby. Her father, Jonathan, was a leading shareholder in the Crushing Company. It also placed heavy responsibility on the elder daughters. Initially, Ellen, who died in 1893, and Isabella managed the home and reared the younger siblings. Jane, born in 1879, would later recall 'working at home' from the age of about six years. Any domestic relief from the introduction of a step-mother, Susannah, was barely transitory. Susannah died in childbirth within the year, leaving the daughters to resume supervision of the running of the household and to rear a baby. This baby moved to the Prydderch family, who raised him. That Ellen and Isabella would rear their younger siblings in a period of diminishing prosperity for gold mining and through a major economic depression of the 1890s with only the support of the Prydderch family, has been taken as reasonable evidence that none of Margaret Ballantine's closer relatives were in Victoria or nearby at the time. There is no memory of these people being asked to assist the family or of any of the younger children having been sent to reside with relatives. Ellen and Isabella supported their father to keep all the children together.

Deep Lead remained a cosmopolitan settlement. Welsh and German surnames were common among the English forms. Chinese were in sufficient number for the Williams children to have a smattering of Chinese greetings to be applied to Mow Fung, licensee of the hotel. There is little to suggest that any of the children could read the Welsh of their father's letters or his Bible.

The Williams family's oral traditions have focused on the Welsh influences from the paternal line and have preserved little of Margaret's background. Despite this failure of oral records, the names of her 12 children - Herbert, Thomas Herbert, Hugh Robert, Ellen, Isabella, Andrew, Margaret, Robert, Jane Elizabeth, Janet, Herbert, Annie Ballantyne - conform to an accepted Scots pattern. The Scots and Welsh names were inserted in the appropriate positions. Perhaps the innovative features of this pattern are the transformation of the surname, Andrew, to a forename and the addition of second names.

In this family, the names of Jane, Jean and Janet have been used frequently. This usage, the loose spelling and some interchange of the names add some complexity to the discovery of this family. One feature of the family's oral tradition has been that 'Janet' was articulated as 'Jenet', rather than as 'Janet' with the long vowel of the Australian accent. This also maintained Jane as a distinct name.

Margaret Williams lies buried at Deep Lead. The grave is known only by its low hewn rock border and its location adjacent to Susannah Prydderch's parents' grave. There is a family account that when Herbert Williams died in 1921, the wives' coffins were relocated so that Herbert's could be laid between them with all burials placed at the same depth. This placement appears to have been complex, but it probably reflects the children's desire that the wives be afforded status with Herbert. Herbert Williams had been a member of the Cemetery Trust. He was also widely known in the district as 'Daddy Williams', a name applied by people of all ages and even young children as the formal means of addressing him.

Fossicking for alluvial gold not only persisted in the outer fields at Stawell but also accommodated the perpetuation of the independent digger, who would 'partially starve' fossicking rather than abandon it for a labour-system of employment. Deep Lead's geology and small populace, post-1880, replicated this independence.

Herbert and Margaret Williams paved a careful, middle path. Frugality kept them in modest comfort. To the end of his days, Herbert handled declining amounts of money and was able to preserve a simple lifestyle by the standards of his contemporaries.

Catherine Brown

The eldest daughter, Catherine, married John Ralston of Brecklate, Southend, in December 1834. From the return in the 1851 Census, Brecklate, a farm of 130 acres where four labourers were employed, was the residence of John and Catherine Ralston and nine children. The nine children included the elder siblings, Catherine, Agnes, Thomas and James. The presence of a younger sibling, Catherine, in 1865, suggests that the eldest daughter died after this Census.

A surviving letter written by John Ralston in November 1849 to his 'brothers' in Winnebago County, Illinois, USA, referred in part to George Picken, Andrew Giffen and John Picken in that area, in addition to Alexander, John and Jean Ralston, assumed to be more distant relatives in the USA.

It is possible that the first of John and Catherine's children to emigrate to Victoria, Australia, was Thomas, who was baptised in 1837. A Thomas Ralston, 28 year old passenger per the Beechworth sailing from Liverpool on 24 December, 1858, disembarked at Geelong, Victoria, shortly before the voyage was completed at Melbourne on 11 April 1859. The passengers had last sighted land on 5 January. Some view of the expected duration of a voyage might be gleaned from the report that this voyage of 108 days had experienced light winds and had been becalmed for 25 days. Connecting the son Thomas with the sailing detail is tenuous. The cited age is about seven years more than would be presumed from the baptism. The detail may also refer to Thomas, son of Alexander Ralston and Elizabeth Ferguson, a cousin. In any case, the elder son settled in Victoria.

It is possible that another son, James Ralston, was the 22 year old migrant per Prince Consort, which left England on 14 March, 1861, and arrived at Melbourne on 30 June. This voyage had crossed the Equator on the fortieth day from England. After sailing in fine weather to near the 'parallel of St Paul', the ship later entered five days of gales and 'head winds on the [Australian] coast'. This reference to St Paul may have been ambiguous. St Paul's Rock at latitude 1° N and 23° W, near the Equator in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as Isle de St Paul at 38° 44' S 77° 30' E in the Indian Ocean, could both have been on the course. Since the former is in such a low latitude, it is more likely that the equatorial location is more applicable.

The age recorded for James is remarkably close to the baptismal date for the son at Southend. At least one and perhaps both voyages may have paved the way for the migration of six siblings after the death of the widowed Catherine Ralston in March 1864. This major emigration meant that all but two of the 10 children in this family emigrated. John Ralston, aged 20, and his younger siblings, Mathew (18), Isabella (16), Marg[are]t (14), Ellen (12) and Catherine (10), who were all described as 'English', sailed as unassisted passengers on the Black Ball Line's 1,266 ton ship, Southern Ocean, from Liverpool on 8 November, 1864. Probably the term 'English' was used to show that they were not Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. This voyage weathered 12 days of gales in the Bay of Biscay followed by 'very light trade winds'. In the southward direction 'while doing her easting, in latitude 45° South', the trip was driven by 'strong favourable winds'. Upon arrival in the waters of Victoria, the ship was placed in quarantine and brought to Hobson's Bay late on Saturday evening for the examination by the Immigration Officer on the following day. All passengers were declared healthy and the trip ended on 18 February, 1865. There were 11 cabin and 372 other passengers on this vessel. It is possible that the Confederate warship Shenandoah, shortly out of Melbourne, had passed the Southern Ocean in the waters before Melbourne.

Mathew Ralston returned to Scotland, married and later settled in Illinois, USA. His travels suggest that for a time the familial links between the Ralstons in Victoria and Illinois were well-established. His siblings had become established in the Bungaree district, east of Ballarat, by at least the 1870s.

Apart from the location there is no additional evidence to suggest that the Patersons and Williams' were in contact with the Ralstons in Victoria. However, for such closely related people to travel to the one region without knowledge of the other or without having some later contact with one another would be inconsistent with the patterns established by the families of the previous decades in America. On arrival, they stayed with close relatives or close friends before moving to make their own homes. Despite that practice, the families in Australia made their own ways in a new colony.


The information on which this work is based has been gratefully enhanced by contributions from Bronwyn Millis, Anntoinette Ralston, Grace Ralston and Elizabeth Johnston. Additional detail comes from the Southend OPR 532, the Public Record Office of Victoria and The Argus [Melbourne].

Part I
Part II

Copyright belongs to the authors unless otherwise stated.

The Kintyre Antiquarian & Natural History Society was founded in 1921 and exists to promote the history, archaeology and natural history of the peninsula.
It organises monthly lectures in Campbeltown - from October to April, annually - and has published its journal, 'The Kintyre Magazine', twice a year since 1977, in addition to a range of books on diverse subjects relating to Kintyre.

CLICK HERE for Correspondence and Subscription Information.

Make cheques payable to "Kintyre Antiquarian & Natural History Society" and not to individuals.

To visit some of my index pages,
choose from this drop down list, and click GO:
HTML-Kit Button